As public health advocates raise alarms over language in the new state impact fee law that they say would violate medical ethics, key authors of the legislation say environmentalists actually lobbied for the language.
Drew Crompton, state Sen. Joe Scarnati’s chief of staff, says the provision was borrowed from a law recently passed in Colorado.
“The real reason that we revamped language from previous versions was at the behest of the environmental groups, which thought we should follow the Colorado law,” says Crompton. “That law was considered the gold standard.”
At issue are requirements that health-care workers must sign confidentiality agreements before they can access proprietary information that would help them treat patients who may have come in contact with drilling chemicals. The law does force companies to publicly disclose the non-proprietary information, which health-care workers can access easily through the website Frac-Focus.org.
Health providers can gain access to proprietary, or trade secret, information in order to treat a patient. But the law requires the health-care worker to sign a confidentiality agreement that says the information can be used only to treat an individual patient.
Dr. Jerome Paulson, professor of pediatrics & public health at George Washington University, says the law runs counter to medical ethics.
“All of the oaths (of the medical profession) require us to work for the good of the public in addition to the individual patients,” said Paulson in a phone interview. “So blocking our ability to collect and share information, or make the collection and sharing of information more cumbersome, means we won’t be able to fulfill our responsibilities.”
But the governor’s energy executive, Patrick Henderson, says people like Paulson are “either misinformed or intentionally mis-leading people.”
In an email, Henderson says public-health officials and workers will have access to the information needed to protect public health. He says the conclusion that the impact fee law may harm the delivery of medical care to injured workers and residents is “absolutely and patently absurd.”
Both Henderson and Crompton say the language was championed by environmental groups such as the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. The PEC’s John Walliser confirmed his role in drafting the language. He says the original bill did not provide medical professionals any access to the proprietary information.
“This was a compromise,” says Walliser. ”We wanted something in there that said if someone needed information right away, for health reasons, they could get it.”
Walliser says industry opposed the emergency disclosure to health providers, unless it was accompanied by the confidentiality clause. He adds that the confidentiality requirement was in no way meant to inhibit treatment, and he sees it as a fair compromise.
Drew Crompton agrees: “No one was saying, ‘Well, now, we’re keeping these people in the dark,’ just the opposite.”
Crompton says the law, which will not go into effect for another several months, leaves room for improvement.
“People will have to give [state] departments time to make sure these things work out,” says Compton. “If not, we’ll revisit it.”
He says the intent is to ensure full disclosure and protect the health of residents and workers.
At the same time, Crompton says, people should realize that some information truly is proprietary.
“The companies deserve protection,” says Crompton. “You wouldn’t put the recipe for Coke on a website.” But, he added, “Trade secrets shouldn’t outweigh an individual’s right to know if they’re harmed.”
The Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Walliser says his understanding is that the goal of the rule is to prevent health-care workers from passing on a company’s trade secret information to competitors. Walliser says no public health professionals were present at the discussions that drafted the final language.